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Review: Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding

May 13, 2011
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“No one but an expert comparing specimens would detect the difference. So forget about subspecies.” – Roger Tory Peterson, A Field Guide to Western Birds. 1969.

“Collecting has proven that it is nearly impossible to name many individuals in the field, even in the spring, so the wise field man usually lets most of them go as just Empidonaxes.” – Roger Tory Peterson, A Field Guide to Western Birds. 1969

“Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned may approach each other so closely in size and tail shape that many cannot be safely identified in the field” – Roger Tory Peterson, A Field Guide to Eastern Birds, 1980

It’s sort of amazing how far the science and proficiency of field identification has come in the years since Roger Tory Peterson established the field guide genre.  In every year that passes, and every batch of field guides that comes down the pike, the percentage of unidentifiable groups of birds – those that make birders toss up their hands and move on down the trail with a sp. in the notebook – has slowly decreased.  That’s not a knock on Peterson, merely a statement to place how far we’ve come in some sort of context.  It’s nothing short of amazing to me that birds that Peterson considered practically impossible to identify in the field, have become, at very least, achievable.

Granted this doesn’t mean that every single bird can be identified given the irregularities of field conditions, that’s a completely impossible goal.  But even if we individual birders can’t identify them, there’s a sense that they can be identified.  Silent Empids, subadult Gulls, Baypoll Warblers.  No longer do they need be consigned forever in the unknown bin, thanks to the hard work of a generation of dedicated and skillful field birders just after RTP who have published a spate of cutting edge field guides, thoughtful articles in birding journals, and amazing family specific guides in the last few years.  No matter where you started, we’re all better birders because of it.

The catalyst, in many ways, for this sort of detailed look at traditionally difficult identification problems was Kenn Kaufman’s Advanced Birding, published in 1990 under the Peterson label.  This first book was straight forward, picking up where field guides, due to obvious space constraints, had to leave off.  It was a trove of information illustrated with simple but effective line drawings in Kaufman’s own hand and putting in print the cutting edge concerns of the nation’s top field birders.  It earned its place on the bookshelf of many would-be “advanced” birders for the next 20 years.

It’s impossible to consider Kaufman’s new Field Guide to Advanced Birding except in light of his original work, but this new – I hesitate to call it a new “edition”- adaptation, perhaps, goes beyond the relatively simple and, in light of the veritable library of family specific guides out there, probably repetitive matter of covering identification quandaries.  Sure, Kaufman’s take on Calidris pipers and Sterna terns is and always will be well-received and insightful, but it’s clear he had a bigger idea here and wasn’t interested in taking the easy way out to simply update his old guide with the newest thoughts on molt and subspecific variation.

This new approach smacks you right in the face on the very cover of the book, a gorgeous adult make Blackburnian Warbler.  It’s a stunning bird, and one every birder in North America would agree is on the short list of the continent’s most beautiful, but one that isn’t an identification pitfall.  No, the word “advanced’ is only there as a bridge to the prior book.  This one could very well be considered a Field Guide to Birding itself, no small topic but one ripe for a considered treatment.

With the increased appreciation for the Cape May school of birding, better known as birding by impression (or gestalt if your feeling German, jizz if you’re feeling saucy), a lot of attention is paid to the idea of looking at the bird less as a collection of field marks and more as a whole organism, the identification of which can be determined by “feel” or some other soft, fuzzy and vague idea.  These sorts of behavioral or habitat cues are often considered in modern field guides as just as important as conventional field marks, strict adhesion to which is considered the  “feather-edges” technique, by which birders parse individual birds down to the minute details using confusing ornithological jargon.  The first way may seem better, and it’s certainly in wide practice anymore, but practitioners of this style of birding, especially very experienced individuals, can seem as though they identify birds by magic, made worse by the fact that few birders are able to give much more explanation that “it just felt like a so-and-so”. This is a dichotomy alluded to early in Kaufman’s book.

What is less obvious is that birding by impression is, in fact, as detailed and quantitative as any feather edge birder.  It’s just that the multiple variables are so quickly tied together and synchronized that it only feels like magic because there’s an enormous amount going on in a birder’s mind when he makes that call.  The bright spot is that this seemingly innate sense of identifying birds, practiced by the best field birders in the country, is absolutely attainable to anyone who picks up binoculars.  And the amazing thing about this book, beyond the fantastic species accounts that you’d expect, is that a whole third is essentially a primer in what a great field birder is thinking about when they look at a bird. Potential sticking points, when to consider subspecific variation, molt, how feathers work and how they lay on a bird. It’s comprehensive, amazingly detailed and maybe even a little overwhelming at first, but it’s a section you’ll be coming back to over and over again.

The species accounts are still excellent.  Most of the line drawings have been replaced by photos, an expected addition, but many are still available to supplement the text.  The new accounts consist primarily of pointers on what to look for when considering certain groups of birds, but the traditionally difficult groups are covered comprehensively.  The Empidonax Flycatcher chapter is particularly excellent, as are the Sterna Terns and Hummingbirds.  The inclusion of sonograms to differentiate the A and B songs of warblers was a very nice touch, even though the book went to press before the wholesale re-jiggering of warbler taxonomy as confirmed, making the chapter sorting them into genii more or less obsolete.  But that’s a small matter, it’s pretty much expected that any taxonomy included in a book will be out of date 12 to 18 months later anymore.

The heart and soul of this book, however, is in the aforementioned first third, and you’ll likely not find a more exhaustive, clear, and frankly fascinating look at how humbling birds can be and how birders can go about dealing with them.   It’s the black box.  The rosetta stone.  It’s the closest thing to actually switching your brain with Kenn Kaufman’s.   With so many great books out there it’s too easy to make hyperbolic claims as to the ability of a given book to make you a better birder, I don’t know if you can ever say that.  But Kaufman’s new Field Guide will make definitely you a more conscientious and informed birder.  And that’s the first step to reaching that grabbing that “Advanced” ring, and becoming comfortable with whatever kind of birder you want to be.

Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing me with a review copy

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